When a Picture Is Worth a Thousands Purrs

Cats come in all shapes and sizes. Whether in the wild or domesticated, cats are sophisticated predators, elegant, agile, mysterious, playful, cunning, mischievous. But there is something aristocratic about felines that has captivated human imagination for millennia, possibly even before the first wild cat became the house cat. And lo and behold, cats have been the subject of many paintings throughout the varied history of art, and it’s worth exploring the most prominent works, if only to see if they do capture their elusive nature. But one thing is certain: the human fascination with cats transcends time and space.

cat art

No wonder that the coolest and most skilled of jazz musicians were called “cool cats”. Is there any genre of music more effortlessly cool than jazz and is there any animal on the face of this earth more casually cool, wonderfully independent and extraordinarily headstrong as the cat? If you were to ask cat lovers everywhere, there aren’t, and if you need an illustration of that fact, art history has it in abundance.

What Do Cats Symbolize in Art History?

Yes, there’s something about cats, and what that “something” is has piqued the interest of not only us, but also numerous famous artists throughout history. Just imagine the first cats, hopping onto the ancient Egyptians’ laps, giving them the piercing eye which screamed “feed me, pet me, love me, but only when I want it”. Can you even begin to understand the perplexity of a cat simply appearing, as if out of thin air, coming to stay, forever, or for as long as it would suit them.

Just to be clear, recent findings do suggest that cats started domesticating themselves as many as 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent (you didn’t really think cats would first stomp on infertile ground), but for the purposes of this article and our metaphor, let’s stick to the story of a cat jumping onto a non-assuming Egyptian’s lap.

It’s highly possible that their initial reaction was similar to the one of a dad not wanting a cat and hating a cat and never, ever letting a cat into their home only to become best buds after literally 15 minutes and neglect their children because of the no-never cat.

Why Are Cats in Art?

Since those ancient times, and through the ages, the nature of the cat hasn’t changed. They’re there when they wish to be there, when it suits them, when they’re hungry, or thirsty, or aching for a cuddle (or a kerfuffle), and they’re not there when we’re boring them, or when we’re overbearing them, or when we’re just probably breathing too loudly and screwing with their nappy time.

And we love them for it, perhaps even more because of it, but never in spite of it, because that’s what makes a cat, a cat, and it’s been like that since, in all likelihood, since the very beginning of time. In the beginning, there was a cat, and it tapped the infinitely small space smaller than an atom, out of sheer boredom, creating all life as we know it. No wonder these tiny creatures have such a powerful presence in our lives and our hearts.

But we digress, as cat-loving people talking about cats often do, so it’s worth returning to the matter at hand, which is how different artists prominent in different eras saw our furry little mischief-prone comrades and what it says about them, as well as the cat.

The Bachelor Party by Louis Wain

famous cats in art

We’re starting it off with a huge one, and that’s five cats, presumably of the male type, painting the town red. This is neither the first nor the only one of Wain’s cat-centered pieces, but it’s by far the most renowned. It’s all in the eyes, and here, the eyes paint a scene reminiscent of Hunter S. Thompson’s works, so you know there’s been plenty of alcohol intake and who knows what else. A jolly boy’s outing in its undistilled essence.

A White Cat Playing With a String by Hiroshige II

old famous cat paintings

Now this is what cats are all about. The artist managed to truly capture the essence of a cat in play, complete with the “don’t touch me” stare. The cat in Hiroshige II’s painting is a creature of sheer will, determination, and focus with a single mission of having the best time of its life.

The style, on the other hand, is simple, evocative of Japan, and minimalistic, portraying and capturing the cat’s bare essentials without any fluff, pun intended. This painting also goes to show that Japan’s love for cats is truly undying.

Raminou Sitting on a Cloth by Suzanne Valadon

art history cats

A sharp turn right and we’re at Suzanne Valadon’s Raminou, who is sitting on a cloth. However, there’s so much more to this piece than a mere cat sitting on a piece of cloth. Here, we’re witnesses to a regal creature, pampered throughout its existence and immortalized with poignant brush strokes.

The strokes emphasize its one essential imperative: “You’re here to feed then entertain me, not the other way around, human”. This must have been one truly lucky feline, that got to enjoy all the pleasures and indulgences that life could offer.

Curiosity by Horatio Henry Couldery

cat art history

Enough with the overly domesticated cats, let’s see something more in line with their predatory instinct, if only just slightly. There’s a bird, and there’s a cage, and the bird’s in the cage surrounded by what’s probably a mother cat with two kittens, peering into the cage, perplexed by what’s inside.

Or so it would seem – we all know what would happen if the cage was to open, and it doesn’t involve the three cats and the bird becoming best friends. We just hope their curiosity doesn’t kill them.

La Poeté by Marc Chagall

cat painting history

Leave it to Chagall to create a mysterious scene with a floating blue cat next to a red-and-white moon or sun above a sad character pondering his existence on the window of his home.

Or was it that the cat had gone too far and that the reason it’s floating is that it had been thrown out of that very window, never to be seen again? A bit unrealistic, as cats always find their way back, if only for revenge.

The Cat at Play by Henriëtte Ronner-Knip

cat art reference

This is a gorgeous painting that showcases all the innocence of a kitten at play. However, that innocence does come with a healthy dose of cute mischief, as it would seem that this particular black-and-white kitten has interrupted a friendly game of checkers.

Of course, who knows if the game will end there. For all we know, the blissfully unaware kitten might tip the cigarette tray and wreak havoc. For now, though, it’s the cat’s curiosity toward the single domino tile that gives this piece its wonderful atmosphere.

The Cat’s Lunch by Marguerite Gérard

cat art pictures

The last piece looks like it was created yesterday: it illustrates all the servility of humans in the presence of a cat. Our feline friend, on a comfy cushioned stool, is being fed what looks like milk, as the human kneels in front of its presence.

The addition of a dog, not getting his lunch, looking at the cat as it feasts just further emphasizes the relationship between humans and felines and canines which remains unchanged to this day.

Oh, and is that a dose of discontent we see on the cat’s face? Wouldn’t be a surprise.